It’s Not Getting Better

Pennsylvania’s power generation sector is one of the nation’s largest — and thus, also, one of the biggest emitters of climate-changing greenhouse gases. Opponents of proven market-based solutions would have Pennsylvanians believe the problem will fix itself, but it’s not getting better. In fact, as the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette recently reported, it’s getting worse.

Pennsylvania’s power plants are now releasing more CO2 than they have since 2016.

Data published in February by the Environmental Protection Agency show a startling 9.6% increase in carbon dioxide pollution from the Commonwealth’s power plants between 2020 and 2021. That’s due in part to commercial and industrial activity resuming as the COVID-19 pandemic wanes, and tracks with the overall pattern evident in other states. But the economic recovery alone doesn’t account for the scale of Pennsylvania’s emissions surge, which significantly outpaced the national average during the same period. Worse, the latest increase reverses a decade-long pattern of gradually but steadily declining emissions.

Coal-fired power generation has been declining for years, but remains a leading source of carbon pollution in Pennsylvania. (image: Environmental Defense Fund)

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Pennsylvania’s power plants are now releasing more CO2 than they have since 2016. In the pandemic’s wake, facilities that run on waste coal are ramping up output to meet demand from cryptocurrency speculators. They’ve had help from the General Assembly by way of the state’s Alternative Energy Portfolio Standards, recently amended to further promote waste-coal generation. 

Meanwhile, as the coal industry itself continues its precipitous decline, Pennsylvania’s three biggest emitters in 2020-2021 were conventional coal-fired facilities. Abundant natural gas, easily outcompeting coal in the market and touted for burning cleaner than other fossil fuels from a CO2 emissions perspective, stands out as well. Gas-fired plants account for six of the state’s top ten highest-emitting facilities, according to the Post-Gazette’s analysis.

Despite these setbacks, Pennsylvania still has a historic opportunity to make real reductions in its power-sector emissions while boosting the economy, and generating revenue to help consumers and invest in the zero-carbon energy system of the future. Under a Department of Environmental Protection rulemaking that is near finalization, later this year Pennsylvania will link its power sector with the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), a ten-state carbon market with the potential to slash 180 million metric tons of CO2 from our carbon footprint by 2030, according to DEP modeling.

(Image: Pennsylvania DEP)

Yet, rather than joining the majority of Pennsylvanians who support the rulemaking, or proposing their own alternatives, leaders in the General Assembly have chosen to spend their time trying to block it. Governor Wolf’s veto pen struck down their latest attempt in January, but anti-RGGI legislators are expected to try again next week. Even as the effects of climate change intensify across the state, directly affecting voters in their own districts, some members appear determined to thwart what may be Pennsylvania’s most straightforward and cost-effective means of achieving its climate goals.

It’s no longer a matter of stepping up the pace of progress…

What’s more, the excuse for lack of action hinges on problems inherent in the status quo rather than on what RGGI can do for Pennsylvania. The opportunity to generate revenues to invest in emission reduction technologies, clean energy manufacturing, and direct consumer assistance could all be provided through participation in RGGI. These programs are needed now, and RGGI could help provide the support to achieve them. 

As we have time and again over the last three years, PEC urges our elected leaders to move on with the urgent business of securing a prosperous and sustainable energy future for Pennsylvania through smart, constructive policies. It’s no longer a matter of stepping up the pace of progress — it’s a matter of reversing course before it’s too late.